Johnson forgets Deere heartache with early lead

Zach Johnson hits his tee shot on the third hole during the first round of the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield.

Zach Johnson hits his tee shot on the third hole during the first round of the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield.

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2:12:01 AM ET. 04/18/2014




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— You have plenty of time on an overseas flight to Scotland from the U.S. to manage a few issues: Such as putting the heartache of a squandered chance to win a golf tournament behind you.

That was taken care of before the charter from the John Deere Classic even covered the Atlantic, Zach Johnson said.

“You have to. I think this game demands resilience. It demands resilience on the golf course each round, each hole, and day to day. It demands it week to week. That just comes with experience.

“I felt great about last week. What I embrace is that I’m playing great.”

(Check out Zach Johnson's equipment he used on Thursday)

Who would dispute that? Not after a near-flawless first round of 5-under 66 at Muirfield vaulted Johnson into the lead of the 142nd Open Championship. Out in 5-under 31, Johnson birdied the par-4 12th before making his only bogey on a sun-splashed day of pulsating warmth, at the par-4 14th.

Johnson lived the experience at the John Deere last Sunday, so it’s not as if he needs people to remind him or to offer their interpretation. He had a lead down the closing holes, yes. He bogeyed the 72nd hole, yes. “(But) I don’t want to say I lost the golf tournament,” he said. “I had an opportunity (to win), but the other guys played great.”

He was referring to David Hearn, who birdied the 16th to get into a tie, and to 19-year-old Jordan Spieth, whose third consecutive birdie to finish his round of 65 also got him into a playoff. On the fifth hole of a playoff, the 18th, Spieth prevailed over Hearn and Johnson to earn a spot into this Open Championship.

But it’s not as if Johnson didn’t know how to go forward from the disappointment. A 37-year-old veteran touring pro, he chalked it up to golf being golf and took focus of an assignment that he seems to have figured out: Finish the Deere on Sunday, hop on a charter provided by tournament officials and fly overnight to the U.K. to be onsite Monday for the Open Championship.

Johnson has done this every year since making his Open Championship debut in 2004, and though he laughed off the suggestion “that I’ve figured out a perfect formula,” he sticks to a routine every year.

“I stay up as late as I can on Monday,” Johnson said, which means when he arrives on the charter he makes his way out onto the course and plays nine holes. Though he didn’t sleep well Monday night, he played 18 Tuesday, after which “I was exhausted.”

Johnson played the front nine Wednesday, which meant “that I had seen every hole twice,” and when he went off in Game 20 at 10:06 a.m., he felt ready. He proved that he was, too. Showing confidence in his driver, at a championship where many are shying away from it, Johnson put himself in great position time and time again.

“I felt comfortable on my approach shots. I had some good numbers to hit some shots close,” Johnson said.

Cognizant of the swirling criticism that players offered about dicey hole locations and burned-out greens, Johnson conceded that it was tough. “But I struck some really nice, solid par putts, and that’s what you’ve got to do to stay in it.”

Although he knocked it close at the par-4 third, par-4 sixth and par-3 seventh to make birdies, he did not do that at the par-5 fifth. No worries, because he slam-dunked a 40-footer for eagle and at 5 under was making it look easy. He also was turning back the clock a little, because he opened with a 65 at Lytham last year to sit just one back of Adam Scott.

“Lytham (also) was demanding off the tee box, which is good for me,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m driving it as good now, if not better than I was last year. I know a lot of guys are saying there’s not a lot of drivers out here . . . but it’s one of my best clubs.”

Johnson said he hit driver six times, which is more than Phil Mickelson will hit it all week – specifically because the driver isn’t in the left-hander’s bag. Johnson, of course, won’t step onto the first tee without it.

As for the heartache of the John Deere, he did leave home without that.

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